There’s a new breed of engineering coming out of the rural West that with time may catch on in other parts of the country. Southern Utah University (SUU) is the first to offer an ABET-accredited bachelor of science degree in integrated engineering (IE), an interdisciplinary, generalized field of engineering studies originally designed to meet the needs of small- to medium-sized rural industries that can’t afford to hire scores of specialized engineers. “We teach our graduates a wide range of engineering fundamentals that interweave with each other,” says Blair McDonald, associate professor of integrated engineering at SUU. “We teach them to try not to solve a problem as a mechanical, civil or materials problem; it’s just a problem. They learn what tools are needed to fix the problem and where to get them.”
McDonald gives the example of a typical small manufacturing company where the integrated engineer would be expected to do everything from managing the facility’s power to maintaining the production line. Says McDonald, “The integrated engineer has to have enough foundation and fundamentals that when something starts to go wrong or when the company expands their line, he recognizes which engineering consultants to look at and hire and then can understand the reports he gets back from the consultants.”
According to William Pratt, chairman of the integrated engineering and technology department at SUU, a degree in integrated engineering is not the end of the road for most graduates. “We require that the students take and pass the fundamentals of engineering exam even before they get their IE degree. So that when they leave here all they need is the four years of experience under a professional engineer; then take and pass the exam in their specialty of choice.”
Which is exactly what Nolan Gray, a senior at SUU’s IE program is doing. After taking the fundamentals of engineering exam a year ago, he’s been going to school and working for a civil engineering firm in Cedar City, Utah, where he’s involved in projects from land development to water systems. Eventually, he plans to sit for the civil exam. “Right now I’m not the engineer. But I do engineering work for an engineer. I like being able to say, ‘I can do anything.’ I understand that might sound a little bit cocky, or overconfident, but I enjoy being able to say that.”
What Gray especially likes about the integrated engineering program is its small size, though at times it can be a double-edge sword, he says. “This year, my largest engineering class is 15 students and the professor knows every single one of us by name. If I have a question, I’m not intimidated because I know the professor. But because the program is so small, you have one class to choose from and if that class doesn’t fit your schedule, you don’t have a choice.”
Indeed, SUU’s integrated engineering is a comparatively small program with four faculty members and 115 students; yet it has grown immensely since its inception in 2001 with only seven students. Next year, it is aiming for 200. One reason for its success is a freshman cohort system where students who are committed to the four-year IE program and are taking Calculus I or higher are mandated to study together one night a week under the mentorship of a professor. Another bonus: Freshmen in the cohort program are given free laptops.
“The students have a sense of community; they start to lean on each other,” McDonald says. Every Tuesday night, whether they are working in the library, study or a conference room, it’s a beehive of activity, with one student or professor at the blackboard explaining a problem, while a small group is working on chemistry off in a corner.
To McDonald, it’s obvious that the success of the program depends on faculty putting in extra time, yet it’s well worth it. Eventually, he says, the students pick up the responsibility of teaching others. “There is no one weak link in the group. Every student takes a turn at teaching a subject. Next year we’re hoping to include upperclass mentors.”
Heather Jackson, one of four women in her class, can’t say enough about the cohort program. Now a sophomore, she’s remained loyal to her IE group, which still meets after class, along with several new members. “I’ll keep meeting with them as long as I can,” predicts Jackson.
SUU’s IE degree program is rigid with 120 hours and few electives. The first two years are typical of most engineering programs, but the last two years are different, with a four-semester design sequence that ends up with two semesters of capstone in the students’ senior year. While the students don’t go into as much depth in one particular area, such as mechanical or civil structural analysis, they are still shown the basic concepts to be familiar enough with them so they can do design work.
Communication is also essential to IE training. As Gray points out, “For each lab experiment, we are required to come up with a lab write-up that is presented in such a way that a person with no engineering background could read it through and understand what happened during that experiment.”
“The main thing is that they get a chance to practice, hands-on,” Chairman Pratt explains. In their junior year, they have to go into the machine shop and build an engine; in the second semester, they redesign and optimize that same engine for performance.” Finally, in their senior year, the integrated engineering students work with industry on a real-world project.
Last year, Smead Manufacturing Co., an office supply manufacturing company in Cedar City, Utah, with 280 employees, offered internships to four of SUU’s students, three of whom were in the integrated engineering program. “One of the IE students came up with an idea that would allow us to automate a portion of our packing and inspection process,” says Dave Luthan, a manufacturing engineer with Smead. “He also proposed that they design that section of machinery for their senior project. We thought it was a good idea, and it became a pretty good joint effort: The university helped with the project management end of it, and we supported the technical and financial involved. The machine is up and working.”
According to Gordon Goodall, general manager at Smead, the improved machinery is going to reduce manufacturing costs and allow Smead, a 100-year-old company, to be more competitive in the marketplace. The automation has also made huge gains ergonomically. Previously, the packing process caused injuries, while the new machine makes the employees’ jobs easier and less stressful on their bodies.
Goodall emphasizes that there were hundreds of smaller projects that the three IE interns were involved with along the way. “It’s a great situation for us as well as for the students.”
The gains of hiring an integrated engineer aren’t necessarily limited to small- and medium-sized businesses. Richard Murdock, rotational engineer co-coordinator for Utah’s department of transportation, says they have hired one SUU integrated engineering graduate and they’re hoping to hire more in the future. “We have an awful lot of highways that we’re maintaining in the southern part of the state, and we don’t really have the pipeline from one of our traditional civil engineering schools, so we’re hoping to build a relationship with SUU. Hopefully, with our relationship, they will put out some engineers who are looking toward the transportation area. We are quite excited about the IE program.”
Blaine Leonard, former vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a member of SUU’s integrated engineering advisory board in its beginning stages, notes how over the past 100 years, the engineering profession has specialized or splintered and will probably continue to do so to some degree. “Integrated engineering is kind of a counter to that trend. In theory, the integrated engineer would have the ability to understand the big picture and might be well-suited for some managerial kind of roles in an engineering operation.”
One question remains: Is there a risk in an integrated engineer being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none? “The answer is yes and no,” Pratt says. “In the eyes of human resource people, their first cut is to sort by degree title. If it doesn’t say mechanical, they toss it.”
But Pratt says SUU has surveyed and studied what industries want in the region. “They told us they expect someone to have a good grasp of the basics of engineering. The companies will train them on the specifics; it’s on-the-job training. For example, one of our graduates is working in a civil firm doing surveying, but he doesn’t have the training. He is, however, versed on the math and trigonometry, and most importantly, he’s a fast learner.”
“Perhaps our students may be a little behind in terms of a few months in specifics,” Pratt continues, “but they catch up very fast and excel in broader knowledge areas where others have little or no exposure.”